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Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India

Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India

by Lawrence James

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In less that one hundred years, the British made themselves the masters of India. They ruled for another hundred, leaving behind the independent nations of India and Pakistan when they finally withdrew in 1947. Both nations would owe much to the British Raj: under its rule, Indians learned to see themselves as Indians; its benefits included railways, roads,


In less that one hundred years, the British made themselves the masters of India. They ruled for another hundred, leaving behind the independent nations of India and Pakistan when they finally withdrew in 1947. Both nations would owe much to the British Raj: under its rule, Indians learned to see themselves as Indians; its benefits included railways, roads, canals, schools, universities, hospitals, universal language and common law.

None of this, however, was planned. After a series of emergencies in the eighteenth century transformed a business partnership-the East India Company-into the most formidable war machine in Asia, conquest gathered its own momentum. Fortunes grew, but, alongside them, Britons grew troubled by the despotism that had been created in their name. The result was the formation of a government that balanced firmness with benevolence, and had as its goal the advancement of India.

But the Raj, outwardly so monolithic and magnificent, always rested precariously on the goodwill of Indians. In this remarkable exploration of British rule in India, Lawrence James chronicles the astonishing heroism that created it, the mixture of compromise and firmness that characterized it, and the twists and turns of the independence struggle that ended it.

Editorial Reviews

Karl E. Meyer
James...has acquitted himself handsomely. His narrative is readable, his research wide-ranging and his judgments informed and tough-minded. -- The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
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Product dimensions:
6.02(w) x 8.97(h) x 1.81(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Prologue: Mughal


India is a land of vanished supremacies. Each proclaimed its power andpermanence by architecture on the grand scale, designed to inspireadmiration, awe and even fear. Always the observer is compelled to lookupwards. One cranes one's neck to see the strongholds of Rajput warlords,perched precariously on the hilltops of Rajputana (Rajasthan), and onestands back to view the great mosques and mausoleums of their overlords,the Mughal emperors. Approach requires a degree of supplication; onetrudges up the hillside to reach the Jaipur maharajas' palace at Amber andvast flights of steps skirt the government offices of the British Raj in NewDelhi. The overall impression is of a country where power has been concentratedin a few hands and always flowed downwards.

    There is much truth in this. The public buildings of the Mughals, theIndian princes and the Raj were expressions of their authority, remindingthe onlooker of his place in the scale of things. Wealth went hand in handwith political power; the elaborate and intricate marblework, jewelledinlays and painted panels which decorated mosques and palaces announcedtheir patrons and owners as men of infinite richness. The British were morecautious about this sort of ostentation. Sir Edwin Lutyens, the mastermindbehind that complex of official buildings which was to form the heart of`imperial' Delhi, considered traditional Indian architecture too florid andtherefore unsuitable for aregime whose chief characteristics were integrityand firmness. Like other, earlier architects of the Raj, he preferred to assertits supremacy with solid stonework and severe classical motifs, which wasunderstandable given that they and their patrons saw Britain as the newRome. The fashion had been set in the early 1800s by the MarquessWellesley, who believed that the dignity of a Governor-General of Bengalrequired a colonnaded mansion in the contemporary Georgian neo-classicalstyle. Opposite his austere but imposing Government House was atriumphal arch surmounted by a vigilant imperial lion, which soon becamea popular roost for Calcutta's cranes, vultures and kites.

    India's official architecture was a backdrop for the traditional public ritualsof state. The formal processions in which a ruler presented himself tohis subjects and undertook his devotions, and the durbars (assemblies) wheregreat men met, exchanged gifts and compliments and discussed highpolicy, required settings appropriate to what was, in effect, the theatre ofpower. At the heart of the Emperor Shahjahan's great palace in Delhi, nowcalled the Red Fort, are the great audience halls, one a vast open courtyard,the other enclosed and reserved for foreign ambassadors and other elevatedvisitors. Both are now stripped of their awnings and wall-hangings and theprivate chamber lacks the Peacock Throne, a stunning construction of goldand jewels surmounted by a golden arch and topped by two gildedpeacocks, birds of allegedly incorruptible flesh which may have symbolisednot only the splendour of the Mughals but also their durability.

    When Shahjahan held durbars for his subjects, dispensing justice andsettling quarrels, he overlooked them from a high, canopied dias with adelicately painted ceiling. If he glanced upwards, he saw a panel whichportrays Orpheus playing his lute before wild beasts who, bewitched by hismusic, are calmly seated around him. The scene was a reminder to theemperor and his successors that they were Solomonic kings. Like theThracian musician, they were bringers of harmony, spreading peace amongsubjects who, if left to their own devices, would live according to the lawsof the jungle. It was a nice and revealing conceit, a key to the nature ofMughal kingship and, for that matter, its successor, the British Raj.

    Shahjahan's Delhi palace (he renamed the city Shahjahanabad) was completedin the middle years of the seventeenth century. He was a Timurid,a dynasty of interlopers who had founded their Indian empire in themid-sixteenth century, and whose pedigree stretched back to the fourteenth-centuryconqueror, Timur the Great (Marlowe's Tamburlaine). ByShahjahan's time, Timurid domination extended from the Himalayanfoothills to the borders of the Deccan. Even in the period of theirascendancy, the Mughals were never absolute masters of the whole ofIndia; there were many remote, inaccessible regions where their will neverpenetrated. There were also areas, particularly in central India, where theirauthority rested on the submission and co-operation of local princes.

    For outsiders, the physical boundaries of Mughal power were immaterial.Contemporary Europeans, fed on travellers' tales of the magnificenceof his courts at Agra and Delhi, rated India's emperor as one of the greatprinces of earth, equal in stature to the Sultan of Turkey or the Emperorof China. The Mughal emperor was a figure of immense dignity andgrandeur, a potentate who was imagined to hold absolute sway over millions.For European intellectuals seeking to understand the nature ofpolitical power, the Great Mughal was the embodiment of that despotismwhich was thought to be natural to the Orient. And yet, the Mughalscomplied with the Renaissance ideals of kingship, for they were renownedas connoisseurs and patrons of the arts. On an embassy to the imperialcourt in 1615, Sir Thomas Roe judged the palace at Agra as `one of thegreat works and wonders of the world' and admitted to the EmperorJahangir, who later had the Taj Mahal built, that his portrait painters surpassedthose of James I. It was, of course, easy for Western visitors to bebowled over by the splendour of Mughal architecture and the magnificenceof their state pageantry, and to imagine that together they were thefaçade of a power which was total and limitless.

    Appearances were misleading. Whatever its architecture announced tothe contrary, the Mughal empire was never monolithic, nor did theemperor's will run freely throughout India. He was shah-an-shah, a king ofkings, a monarch whose dominions were a political mosaic, whose tesseraincluded provinces administered by imperial governors and semi-independentpetty states. In the Deccan alone there were over a thousandfortified towns and villages, each under the thumb of its own zamindar(landowner), who was both a subject of the emperor and his partner ingovernment. The machinery of Mughal government needed the goodwilland co-operation of such men, as well as the services of its salaried administratorswho enforced the law and gathered imperial revenues.

    Timurid power rested ultimately on the cash raised from the land tax. Itsburden was heaviest on the ryots (peasants) and it was theoretically yieldingan annual 232 million rupees (£31.3 million) at the close of the seventeenthcentury. Taken from an official revenue manual, this estimateignored the often considerable sums siphoned off by venal officials.Nonetheless, the Mughals possessed, at least on paper, the wherewithal toplay a political masterhand in their dominions: cash procured soldiers,allies and a loyal civil service. It could also seduce the discontented andpurchase the allegiance of enemies. In the early 1690s, when the EmperorAurangzeb's armies were fighting in Karnataka, he lured back a renegaderaja, Yacham Nair, with an offer of a jagir (a lifetime annuity from land revenue)worth 900,000 rupees (£121,500) a year. Not long after, Aurangzebordered Yacham's arrest and murder.

    This was a typical exercise in Mughal statecraft. Dynastic survival andIndia's tranquillity depended upon an emperor's mastery of the arcane artsof political fixing; he gave or withheld patronage, he bargained with lesserprinces, and played ambitious courtiers, nobles and officials against eachother. Shahjahan's choice of Orpheus, the mollifier and enchanter, as asource of political inspiration was therefore very apt. It was also a verydaring gesture, for the presence of a figure from pagan mythology abovethe imperial seat of power would certainly have made many of theemperor's fellow Muslims uneasy.

    Like the Turkish and Persian empires, Mughal India was an Islamicstate. It had, in 1700, an estimated population of about 180 million, ofwhom at least two-thirds were unbelievers, mostly Hindus. Although theemperors enjoyed the title khalifa (Caliph), and with it a claim to beregarded by Muslims as successors to Muhammad, they could only governwith the co-operation of the Hindus. A policy of pragmatic toleration wasadopted, but unevenly and in ways which never wholly satisfied the Sikhsof the Punjab or the Hindu warrior castes, the Jats of Rajasthan and theMarathas of the Deccan. Integrated within the Mughal system, thesegroups submitted grudgingly and were always ready to spring to arms iftheir faith appeared to be in danger. Aurangzeb's policy of destroyingHindu temples during the suppression of insurrections in Karnataka andRajasthan stiffened rather than reduced resistance.

    Ever since the genesis of the Timurid empire under Akbar the Great(1556-1605), dynastic survival had depended on genetic good fortune inthe form of emperors who were forceful, energetic and skilled manipulators.This luck ran out with the death of Aurangzeb in 1707, and theempire passed into nerveless and fumbling hands. Even so, it would haverequired rulers with superhuman talents to have preserved an inheritancewhich was already beset by difficulties, let alone overcome the problemswhich raised themselves during the next sixty years.


The Mughal empire fell apart swiftly. In what turned out to be the finalsurge of Mughal expansion, Aurangzeb overstepped himself by undertakinga series of campaigns designed to extend and consolidate his rule in theDeccan and Hyderabad. They became a war of attrition which stretchedimperial resources beyond their breaking point, and by 1707, after nearlytwenty years of intermittent fighting, the empire was exhausted. There wasno breathing space; an eighteen-month war for the succession followedAurangzeb's death. Moreover, the repercussions of the stalemate in centraland southern India and the civil war were felt across the country. From theearly 1680s onwards the Jats of Rajasthan launched a sequence of insurrectionsagainst oppressive taxation, seizing whole districts, occupyingtowns and, growing more audacious, were raiding the suburbs of Delhi by1717.

    Strong men flourished as anarchy spread. It was a period of making andbreaking as determined and ambitious men snatched at opportunities toenrich themselves and usurp authority. Imperial officials, increasingly isolatedand starved of funds, found their loyalty withering and looked forways to preserve and advance themselves in a suddenly mutable world.There were fortunes to be made among the wreckage of an empire whichwas cracking up, and success went to the cunning and ruthless.

    The adventures of Riza Khan, an Afghan professional soldier in theimperial service, may serve as a template for the stories of many others. Inabout 1700 he was appointed governor of Ramgir in the Deccan, butfound his entry barred by his predecessor. Riza, a determined andresourceful figure, gathered extra men and entered the town by force, andturned it into a private power base. Turning his back on an emperor whowas no longer able to reward his servants, Riza decided to make his owndestiny; he turned bandit and enriched himself by diverting imperial taxesinto his own pocket and looting caravans. He prospered and attracted followers,men like himself who had been cast adrift in a violent anddisorderly world and whose only assets were their wits and their swords.His horde grew, swollen by deserters, unpaid soldiers from other armies,and those whose livelihoods had been destroyed by war and brigandage.Within six years Riza Khan was the leader of 10,000 freelances and animportant piece on the chessboard of local power politics. His serviceswere sought and obtained by Mughal officials in Hyderabad, once to helprun down another bandit. He might have ended his life as a landowner,perhaps the founder of a dynasty, but his luck ran out in 1712 when he wastricked, taken prisoner and executed by a new governor.

    Others were more fortunate. Daud Khan Ruhela, another Afghan andthe alleged son of a slave, made himself the master of a cluster of villages inthe region north-east of the old imperial capital, Agra. It was an areawhere Akbar the Great had encouraged Afghan settlement in the sixteenthcentury, no doubt with an eye to swelling the numbers of hisMuslim subjects. Daud Khan proceeded in what was becoming the classicmanner for ambitious freebooters: he first hired himself and his brigands toanother man on the make, a local zamindar, and then picked up propertyand helped himself to imperial revenues. Playing a double game with theRaja of Kumaun, he came unstuck, was captured and tortured to death in1720. It was onwards and upwards for his adopted heir, Ali MuhammadKhan, who showed a remarkable virtuosity in switching alliances and, ashis estates and prestige grew, meddling in the intrigues of the imperialcourt. When he died in 1748 he was the dominant figure in the constellationof petty Ruhela states which had emerged over the past thirty yearsand now stretched from the foothills of the Himalayas southwards acrossthe Ganges valley to a line between Delhi and Agra. Princes deferred tohim; the Raja of Garwhal paid him 160,000 rupees (£21,600) a year inprotection money, and he was deeply engaged in the factional strife atcourt.

    One of Ali Muhammad Khan's greatest opportunities had come in1739-40, when a Persian army under Nadir Shah invaded India, defeatedthe Emperor Muhammad at the battle of Kamal and then occupied Delhi.The city was thoroughly plundered, its inhabitants massacred and, in agesture which combined cupidity with political symbolism, the PeacockThrone was carried off to Persia. While Delhi was in chaos, Ali MuhammadKhan engrossed a handful of parganas (imperial tax districts). Likeevery other predator on the loose in India, his motive in acquiring imperialrevenues was a mixture of greed and political acumen. By encroachingon imperial rights, India's new masters transformed themselves into theheirs of the emperor.

    By the mid-eighteenth century the self-made heirs of the Timuridemperors had changed the political map of India. New polities hadappeared: the large states of Mysore, Hyderabad, Awadh (Oudh), Bengaland the Maratha principalities of Deccan. There was also a body of looserpolitical units formed by the Ruhelas, the Sikhs of the Punjab and theRajputs of Rajasthan. The masters of both the larger and smaller statesbehaved as independent rulers and presented themselves to their subjects asthe legitimate successors of the Mughals. These `lesser Mughals' upheld allthe administrative codes and practices of traditional imperial government,particularly and for obvious reasons those concerned with the impositionof taxes.

    And yet, curiously, India's arriviste princes continued to treat theemperor's person with customary respect and reverence long after his realpower had evaporated. Even after 1784, when he became the virtual prisonerof the Maratha prince, Mahadji Scindia, his captor insisted that he wasmerely a `servant' of the emperor. Although little more than ornaments,the Timurid emperors were still the sole source of legitimate politicalauthority within India. They had none themselves, but they could beinduced to bestow it on others, which was why nobody wished to get ridof them.

    Mughal traditions and culture set the tone in all the new states. AliMuhammad Khan was the patron of poets and musicians. Like the emperors,he generously endowed mosques and had a mausoleum built in hiscapital, Aonla (south-west of Bareilly), which is still an object of veneration.Murshid Quli Khan, Nawab (governor) of Bengal, who delicatelybalanced his duties as a Mughal agent in the province with establishinghimself as its effective ruler, followed imperial custom by renaming its capital,Murshidabad. It was embellished, at his expense, with a splendid,five-domed mosque. Hindu princes also imitated Mughal munificence byfounding temples and building palaces in the Mughal style with audiencehalls, private apartments and elaborate gardens. Former Mughal artisansand artists were employed in all these enterprises; humble men, like greatones, had to follow where advantage led them.

from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Lawrence James was born in Bath and educated at the University of York and Merton College, Oxford. After a distinguished teaching career, he emerged as one of the outstanding narrative historians of this generation. He lives in St. Andrews, Scotland.

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